From the Third Treatise: What Do Ascetic Ideals Means of On The Genealogy of Morality:

Much more frequent than this sort of hypnotic general suppression of sensitivity, of susceptibility to pain – which presupposes even rarer forces, above all courage, contempt of opinions, “intellectual stoicism” – is the attempt at a different kind of training against conditions of depression, one that is in any case easier: mechanical activity. That this relieves a suffering existence to a not inconsiderable degree is beyond all doubt: today this fact is called, somewhat dishonestly, “the blessing of work.” The relief consists in this: that the interest of the sufferer is thoroughly diverted from the suffering – that is continually doing and yet again only doing that enters into consciousness and, consequently, that little room remains in it for suffering: for it is narrow, this chamber of human consciousness! Mechanical activity and that which belongs to it – like absolute regularity, punctual unreflected obedience, one’s way of life set once and for all, the filling up of time, a certain permission for, indeed discipline in “impersonality,” in self-forgetfulness, in “incur Sui”-: how thoroughly, how subtly the ascetic protest knew how to use these in the battle with pain.

Today we see mechanical activity pursued with even greater vigour, heavily individualised though no less regimented. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to express in the last few years in my writing on cognitive triage: how we embrace the narrowness of the cognitive chamber, losing ourselves in movement in order to blot out the existential challenges which otherwise impinge involuntary upon our consciousness.

(Translated by Maudemarie Clark and Alan Seensen in a 1998 Hackett Publishing edition)

Earlier this morning, I found myself impatiently waiting in my local petrol station to purchase a drink before I went swimming. The woman in front me in the queue was rather slow. Initially seeming surprised that money would be required for the transaction, she proceeded to initiate an entirely different process to locate her coins after handing over the necessary notes. Having completed the exchange, she gathered her things with a similar lack of pace, slowly preparing to leave the shop. It was at that point that she gently chided me for rushing her, suddenly leaving me aware that this was in fact what I was doing by impatiently lingering while effectively pointing towards the cashier with my drink.

With this newfound awareness, my irritation at her transmuted into an irritation with myself. Why was I being so impatient? Why was I being needlessly rude? It immediately occurred to me that this was an example of what I mean by cognitive triage. Having woken up later than planned, I started the day with a vivid sense of all the tasks I had to complete, with one leading in sequence to the next. There were a couple of things that had to be done today but this sense of urgency mostly reflected a desire to be on top of things before I headed off to the midlands for the rest of the week.

It was an anticipatory urgency: a haste animated by the fear of falling behind in the future. This can be distinguished from rushing to meet a deadline. The imminent arrival of a deadline offers a fixed temporal horizon for an activity. One rushes and then ceases to rush. In contrast, anticipatory urgency is potentially open-ended. If an upcoming event is a threat to ‘being on top of things’ then where to draw the line in terms of what is required to be prepared? My suggestion is that anticipatory urgency engenders a peculiarly hasty form of haste. It involves rushing in a rushed way. Not simply speeding up to meet a deadline but trying to speed up one’s speeding up. How much can I get done before I go away? How prepared do I need to be? It’s a reflexive orientation that can bring out the worst in people, as my rudeness in the garage illustrates.

There is a pleasure in speed, as Milan Kundera powerfully captures in his Slowness. There is the possibility of transcendence. On pg 3-4 he describes the inner experience of a man on a motorbike:

the man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instance of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words he is in a state of ecstasy. In that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

In contrast, I’d argue, anticipatory urgency precludes this. One is not cut off from past and future but profoundly implicated in the relationship between the two. The present is subordinated the future, with the usual texture of temporality being reduced to an endless sequence of moments. Each one is simply a challenge lying in the way of reaching the next. It creates flat time. This suppression of relationality is licensed by the promise that the important events will come and our anticipatory urgency will have left us properly open to them. But the more time we spent in a state of anticipatory urgency, the less likely it is that this promise will ever be realised.

The ideas are pretty familiar but I nonetheless really like this section from Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise, pg 86. I’m trying to use the notion of cognitive triage to explore how obsessive self examination subtracts from time and energy actionable for working with others to address social issues.

A series of situations that characterize today’s society perfectly exemplify this type of superego-individualization: ecology, political correctness and poverty. The predominant ecological discourse which addresses us as a priori guilty, indebted to mother nature, under the constant pressure of the ecological superego-agency, addresses us as individuals: What did you do today to repay your debt to nature? Did you put all newspapers into the proper recycling bin? And all the bottles of beer or cans of Coke? Did you use your car when you could have used a bike or public transport? Did you use air conditioning instead of just opening the windows? 49 The ideological stakes of such individualization are easily discernible: I get lost in my own self-examination instead of raising much more pertinent global questions about our entire industrial civilisation.

Notes for a talk next week

My concern in this short talk is not to diagnose the underlying conditions which generate an acceleration of social life, or indeed the various experiences which differently placed actors have of such acceleration. Instead, I’m interested in the novel and deeply reflexive cultural forms arising under these conditions, as what we might think of as temporal strategies, originally grounded in the lived experience of coping with intensified demands, instead become commodified and take on a relative autonomy vis-a-vis their application.

The most familiar manifestation of this commodification is the self-help industry, estimated as an $11 billion industry in 2013. This is a market that has changed a lot in recent years, as depressing incomes have constrained a previously buoyant market of live events and the challenge of digital media has encouraged many self-help gurus to give away ‘taster’ content online as they attempt to build up a brand. It’s easy to become preoccupied with the highest profile speakers and their global best sellers: for instance The Secret has sold more than 19 million copies and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold more than 25 million copies. But there’s also a buoyant coaching market (estimated $1.5 billion world wide) and public seminars market (estimated $308 million in the United States) which need to be recognise as part of the broader self-improvement or self-help industry.

My concern is with a more recent addition to this landscape: productivity culture. The most influential text of productivity culture, Getting Things Done by David Allen Green, has sold 1.6 million copies. The category of ‘productivity’ has become a central feature of apps, with many thousands available for the many millions of iPads and iPhones in circulation, as well as comparable availability for other mobile platforms. There’s a whole movement towards what the technologist Alex Pang calls ‘contemplative computing’: designing software that minimises distraction and facilitates immersive productivity. The popular blog Life Hacker reaches over 20 million people each month and has helped spawn a much wider ecosystem of productivity orientated content online.

It’s within this broader ecosystem that we can see a rich flourishing of what I’ve come to think of as triaging strategies: ways of coping with an intensity of demands placed upon the self by calibrating our responses to our environment and establishing new priorities. We have to treat these strategies carefully because they’re being promulgated: some people might simply be reflecting upon their experiences for anyone who happens to take an interest but many are selling books, coaching services and webinars. In fact people can move from one category to the latter, as the fact of having accumulated an audience for one’s musings on these issues holds out an inevitable temptation of ‘monetising’ this audience through the production of a book. In this sense, the promulgation of a triaging strategy can itself be a triaging strategy i.e. it’s a scheme to escape the ‘rat race’ and find a new direction in life, one more satisfying and rewarding than the present reality.

One further methodological caveat. We shouldn’t infer a common outlook  from a common action. Just because someone buys a particular book or read a particular website, does not mean that they do so for the same reason or  react in the same way to the cultural content they are engaging with. Someone might buy  a book for idle curiosity, a deep sense of need, to fill time, to critique or for any number of other reasons. Someone might then devote their life to the principles expounded in the book, react with a disinterested curiosity about the different ways in which one can live life, throw the book away at the first opportunity, forget it all together or any number of other reasons. Recognising this variability of responses is crucial to understanding the phenomenon of triaging strategies: these are cultural resources, usually though not always offered as commodities by those seeking to sustain themselves through this activity, susceptible to being picked up and put down, applied in many different ways or not at all. These are technologies of the self. But we misconstrue them if we fail to consider the diverse range of ways in which differently situated selves might draw upon them, how their characteristics will be inflected through the ensuing context, as well as how such actions will aggregatively lead to the transformation or reproduction of the cultural form e.g. contributing to rising sales figures through word of mouth or changing public perceptions of it.

My suggestion is that the 7 triaging strategies I offer can be usefully analysed in terms of the nexus of work and life. This is the terminology that occurs frequently within the literature but these are also useful analytical categories to understand the lived experience of intensifying demands. We occupy multiple social roles and there are many factors leading to an intensification of demands upon each one of them e.g. constant connectivity at work, rising expectations of parental activity, automation leading to the outsourcing of ‘shadow work’ to consumers etc.

There are many factors, each of which could be a talk in their own right. My concern here is not to elucidate them but rather to consider how intensifying expectations within clusters of social roles that we can loosely categorise as ‘work’ and ‘life’ create problems for the subject. As Margaret Archer puts it, “roles are greedy”. There’s no logical limit to how much of ourselves we can invest in them but there are temporal, physical, psychological and socio-economic constraints on the choices that we make. It requires reflexivity to negotiate between these competing demands, something which itself requires time and space. My argument will be that these 7 triaging strategies can be usefully conceptualised as different solutions to the increasingly problematic relationship between ‘work’ and ‘life’ under digital capitalism. My suggestion is that this is usually experienced as personal life being consumed by working life, the concerns of the self being subordinated to the imperatives of the workplace. But a crucial part of the investigation which I’m still in the early stages of undertaking is to analyse the different ways the underlying dilemmas conceived of and represented in this literature.

  1. If personal life is being consumed by working life, one solution is to seek a job that perfectly expresses yourself.  Thus I believe we can see the contemporary resurgence of the notion of the vocation as  something expressive of an underlying impulse towards finding personal fulfilment in working life by blurring boundaries between the two domains. As well as the macro-economic untenability of this strategy for most under contemporary capitalism, much scholarship in cultural policy and the sociology of work reveals how this discourse of ‘passion’ – doing what you love – goes side-by-side with exploitative and worsening working conditions, growing expectations of unpaid work and spiralling working hours.
  2. An equally familiar solution  is to instrumentally calibrate the demands of working life and personal life. This is most frequently expressed in terms of the notion of the work/life balance, but in sectors defined by a project based knowledge work  we increasingly see the notion of the work/life merge: a wilful collapse of temporal boundaries, using mobile computing to both work and life in a more or less spontaneous sequencing over the course of the day. The extent to which this is chosen or enforced remains a pressing question.
  3. Another solution is to  is to minimise the demands of personal life and working life. The most extreme expressions of this  lifestyle minimalism represent a form of moral athleticism, in which advocates compete to see who most radically reduce their possessions into a set number of objects. It’s correspondingly hostile to ‘clutter’ and imbues it with almost magical capacities to shape one’s psychic life. It sometimes celebrates nomadism – of a very privileged sort – including a permanent home within the category of ‘stuff’ that constrains our lives. But it is driven by an underlying concern for quality over quantity: reclaiming core experiences by dispensing with that deemed ‘unnecessary’. It’s striking how completely dominated the online discourse of lifestyle minimalism is by childless white men in their 20s to 40s, usually seeming to be without attachments. This is asceticism for a certain demographic rather than a strategy for all.
  4. Perhaps the most novel solution is the concept of lifestyle design: instrumentally reducing the demands of working life in order to focus on personal life. Propounded most successfully by Tim Ferris, whose book The Four Hour Work Week has sold well over a million copies, it encourages a strategic mobility: exploiting currency differentials in order to live richly without necessarily being rich, outsourcing as many tasks as possible to virtual assistants operating out of Indian cities and taking ‘mini-retirements’ to focus intensively on certain skills or experiences. It almost represents a kind of hipster neo-colonialism, a strategy utterly dependent on global power relations defining contemporary digitalised and financialised capitalism.
  5. A fifth solution is to seek to dispense with working life to the greatest extent possible. A superb recent book by the Cardiff sociologist David Frayne presents interviews with a diverse range of movements sharing a common orientation to the refusal of work: reducing hours to their minimum, giving up work entirely or otherwise seeking to escape from working life.
  6. We can see a novel form of temporizing emerging in extreme early retirement: embracing a rigid asceticism for many years, intricately monitoring spending and income, in order to ensure the possibility of retiring by a fixed point in time. This represents a solution of sequencing: solving the problems of the relation between work and life by working now in order to live later. It’s interesting to consider the assumptions this makes about the future calculability of digital capitalism e.g. if this is reliant on pensions and investments, how will predicted long term declines in average returns lead to a gradual ratcheting up of the early retirement age and how will practitioners of extreme early retirement reaction to this?
  7. Finally, I think self-optimisation can be included here, particularly when it involves open-ended projects of self-improvement using self-tracking technologies. Not all self-tracking practices are concerned with self-optimisation: we need to distinguish here between goal orientated self-tracking, experimental self-tracking and ongoing projects to perpetually optimise oneself. But an ongoing project to become more productive in work and life, to optimise oneself for the conditions in which one lives and works, seeks to solve the dilemma by improving performance on both sides of the dichotomy. The problem arises because demands are not static and learning to be quicker inevitably incites one to do more: choices that might formerly have been made on the basis of practical necessity now become live options, risking an intensification of demands and rendering further self-optimisation necessary in order to cope.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and each of these strategies presented is just a brief outline of a complex phenomenon. My claim is that these need to be recognised in their specificity and that the ‘greedy’ relationship between the role clusters of ‘work’ and ‘life’ represents a useful analytical framework through which to understand the purpose of these strategies and how they can be taken up by subjects struggling to cope with the intensified demands of digital capitalism.

How widespread is this? From The Confidence Men, by Ron Suskind, pg 585:

Emanuel, with his day-to-day focus on “getting points on the board,” scrambled for quick results, trying to win each day’s news cycle. As Bob Rubin told one of his many acolytes in the White House during a phone call, “Rahm’s more inclined to want to get a bill passed than really be worried about what’s in the bill.”

From In The Plex, by Steven Levy, pg 134:

It’s sort of like the corporation as housewife,” wrote Googler Kim Malone in an unpublished novel. “Google cooks for you, picks up and delivers your dry cleaning, takes care of your lube jobs, washes your car, gives you massages, organizes your work-outs. In fact, between the massages and the gym, you’ll be naked at work at least three times a week. It organizes amazing parties for you. And if all that is not enough, there is a concierge service; you can just send an email and they’ll run any errand you want for $25 an hour.”

From pg 136:

There is also a constantly replenished supply of pens and dry markers. Essentially, Google has eliminated a potential hundreds of thousands of downtime hours that employees would otherwise spend on housekeeping errands.

From Jony Ive, by Leander Kahney, pg 72:

The production schedules also got shorter and shorter. When Brunner first started at Apple, the product development cycle was eighteen months or more. ‘It was crazy generous,’ Brunner said. ‘You had an amazing amount of time to make something work.’ Within a couple of years, however, the product development cycle shrank to twelve months, then nine, and sometimes even six months if the product was needed in a hurry. ‘All of a sudden, what got compressed was our thinking time,’ Brunner said. ‘It still took just as long to implement something, but the time to explore, to test and to play with, just went away.’

This is an interesting example of what I write about as cognitive triage*. The acceleration of working life, in this case driven by the intensified tempo of product development, leads to a prioritisation of urgent requirements at the expense of non-urgent but nonetheless important aspects of a process. This changes what actors within the organisation do with effects that manifest themselves both aggregatively and collectively: the organisation comes to be populated by collections of individuals who orientate themselves differently to their work and action they may or may not take collectively is inflected through these changes in individuals.

*The term was originally used by the journalist Kevin Roose in a superb book about young financiers. At some point I want to try and contact him to see what he makes of my subsequent use of the idea.

From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 125:

Some members of the Texas crew honed their skills to the point that they could build a test- worthy engine in three days. These same people were required to be adept at software. They’d pull an all- nighter building a turbo pump for the engine and then dig in the next night to retool a suite of applications used to control the engines. Hollman did this type of work all the time and was an all- star, but he was not alone among this group of young, nimble engineers who crossed disciplines out of necessity and the spirit of adventure. “There was an almost addictive quality to the experience,” Hollman said. “You’re twenty- four or twenty- five, and they’re trusting you with so much. It was very empowering.”

From pg 127 of the same book:

Respites, as far as they existed, came around 8 P.M. on some weeknights when Musk would allow everyone to use their work computers to play first- person- shooter video games like Quake III Arena and Counter- Strike against each other. At the appointed hour, the sound of guns loading would cascade throughout the office as close to twenty people armed themselves for battle. Musk— playing under the handle Random9— often won the games, talking trash and blasting away his employees without mercy. “The CEO is there shooting at us with rockets and plasma guns,” said Colonno. “Worse, he’s almost alarmingly good at these games and has insanely fast reactions. He knew all the tricks and how to sneak up on people.”

From pg 169-170:

Eberhard promptly returned to the Tesla building and ginned up a similar speech. In front of about a hundred people, Eberhard had a picture of his young daughter projected onto the wall of the main workshop. He asked the Tesla engineers why he had put that picture up. One of them guessed that it was because people like his daughter would drive the car. To which Eberhard replied, “No. We are building this because by the time she is old enough to drive she will know a car as something completely different to how we know it today, just like you don’t think of a phone as a thing on the wall with a cord on it. It’s this future that depends on you.” Eberhard then thanked some of the key engineers and called out their efforts in public. Many of the engineers had been pulling all- nighters on a regular basis and Eberhard’s show boosted morale. “We were all working ourselves to the point of exhaustion,” said David Vespremi, a former Tesla spokesman. “Then came this profound moment where we were reminded that building the car was not about getting to an IPO or selling it to a bunch of rich dudes but because it might change what a car is.”

The culture of competitive sleep deprivation has reached weird heights in recent years. This Guardian feature, detailing the times at which CEOs wake up, gives some sense of the extreme forms this can take. Concern for sleep pervades productivity culture, most obviously on sites like Life Hacker, with sleep routines given parity to software choices in their interviews with prominent creatives. 

This emerging cultural politics of sleep is a really interesting aspect of what I’m trying to analyse in my new book as cognitive triage (or rather triaging strategies, driven by and in turn driving, the intensification of work). This ‘sleep deprivation arms race‘ tracks the ossification of opportunity structures across many careers, as well as an acceleration of personal resources being deployed for professional gain. As Lucy Rock observes,

Margaret Thatcher accelerated the sleep deprivation arms race when it emerged she ran the country on four hours’ sleep a night. From Donald Trump’s three to four hours a night to Bill Clinton’s five to six hours when he was president and Condoleezza Rice’s habit of getting up at 4.30am to go to the gym when she was US Secretary of State, minimal sleep has become a sign of your commitment to the job.

Angela Ahrendts, head of retail at Apple who was the first woman to top Britain’s executive pay league when she was CEO at Burberry gets up at 4.35am. She gets a headache if she sleeps for more than six hours. It is, she said, “my inspirational time, my time to find peace, to watch the sun rise”. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s chief executive takes between four to six hours a night; Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, a mere four hours. 

Now we can be plugged into the world of work day and night, it feels more than ever that to work more and sleep less is the way to the top. Knocking off at 6pm? Hmmm… the boss will be answering emails until 9 and her boss until 11 and as for her boss, well, she only needs three hours’ sleep a night.

But where did it come from? One part of addressing this question involves analysis of the pleasures of acceleration. But another concerns role modelling. There’s a great paper by Ismael Al-Amoudi which I need to go back to in order to develop my analysis of this in terms of modes of reflexivity. But meanwhile, I just wanted to record this little extract from the end of the great Bill Gates biography I’ve been reading recently. From Gates, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, loc 10268-10287: 

“He is the world’s busiest man, bar none,” said Charles Simonyi, citing one trip that included “Eleven meetings in five days in Europe—you know, like there were days there would be two countries. And he doesn’t fly a private plane, either.” Gates still managed a schedule as packed as anyone’s, but as he headed toward his forties, he seemed to be modestly tempering his legendary workaholism—and seemed vaguely defensive about it:   Most people have an overblown view of how many hours they work. It’s hard: Working eighty hours is very hard. You can’t do much else if you’re gonna do that. So there’s lots of weeks I work eighty hours, but I think my average is lower than that. . . .On average I take every other weekend off. . . .I’m probably more like seventy average now. There are some weeks I work more than eighty. Like those weeks I travel to Europe: That’s all I’m doing, is working, sleeping, working, sleeping. So you can get weeks where I’ll put in over ninety. I mean, I assume you don’t count reading business magazines, the Journal or the Economist.   Upon recomputing, he decided that an average of seventy-two hours was the proper figure. Though in recent years Gates had vacationed in the Dominican Republic, Thailand, and Australia with his girlfriend, he could barely contemplate the idea of a longer period of relaxation: “It’s possible I’d take a month off in the next three years. I don’t know what that would be like. I’ve never taken more than a week off with weekends on both ends.”

How much influence did the first billionaire boy-king of technology have in generating this ensuing arms race of competitive sleep deprivation? What does he think of the results? What did he personally gain from this? Was it good and/or necessary for the business? Was it good and/or necessary for his self? I’ve argued in the past that embracing acceleration, pursuing busyness as something desirable, can function in the same way as drink or drugs to help ‘blot out’ unwelcome internal conversation. This comment by an ex girlfriend certainly hints at this explanation in the case of Gates, from loc 10287 of the same biography:

“I don’t know what he would do if he had some time to spend alone with himself,” said one short-term girlfriend who tired of his strange blend of selfishness and selflessness. “He has a significant data storage device. But I don’t think he has a lot of wisdom.” And she didn’t think he was all that happy either. “So many times he complained about how he’s got to be here and got to be there. You say ‘Why don’t you say you’re not going to show up?’ but he won’t do that. He’ll stand up for everybody, but he won’t stand up for his happiness.”

But of course, the cognitive costs of living like this will continue to mount up. This is why I’ve argued for the importance of zones of strategic deceleration. Gates pursues this in a more individualistic way. From loc 9826-9846 in Gates:

Shortly before the Akers flap became public, Bill Gates had gone to the Gateaway complex for one of his “think weeks,” a tradition that had begun on the return from Albuquerque, when Bill would take a week off to spend time with Gam at her place on Hood Canal. Alone with his thoughts, he would strategize, read, play with competitors’ software, and “write a lot of memos.

However this is a form of temporising, compensating for but doing nothing to change the underling process. I’m not sure how, if at all, the holidays he took can be included within this analysis. But they’re notable nonetheless. From loc 8242 in Gates, as recounted by an ex girlfriend:

Winblad even convinced Bill to take a vacation now and then by coming up with “reading themes . . . We had a physics vacation once, a biotech vacation once, and we had an F. Scott Fitzgerald vacation.” Winblad was responsible for picking and packing all the reading material.

Yesterday saw the news that ‘Infidelity site’ Ashley Madison had been hacked, with the attackers claiming 37 million records had been stolen. The site is an online forum for infidelity, a dating site explicitly designed to facilitate affairs, something which potentially provoked the ire of the hackers. Or it could be the fact that users are charged a fee of £15 to permanently delete their records from the site, the efficacy of which the hackers dispute. This seems to be indicative of a broader trend in which dating sites as a whole were found by the Electronic Freedom Foundation to have failed to implement basic security procedures and to be near uniformly vague or silent about whether user data was deleted after the closure of an account.

This is a specific instance of a much broader category of problem which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: escaping the filter bubble. I use this concept in a much broader sense than Eli Pariser‘s original use in his (excellent) book. I see filter bubbles as being a matter of algorithmic enclosure but also of information security. In fact I would argue that the former inevitably poses questions for the latter, because filter bubbles rest upon the collection of personal information and intervention upon this basis. Filter bubbles always pose questions of information security because environments designed around them are always information-hungry and mechanisms of personalisation inevitably introduce opacity into interactions between users and a system in an asymmetric way. But I’d like to expand the concept of filter bubble to encompass the entire informational environment in which we find increasingly find ourselves deliberately enclosed through our use of digital technology. Not all of this is applied algorithmically but I would argue, somewhat crudely, we can talk about greater or lesser tracts of everyday life being lived via digital mediation in a filter bubble characterised by varying degrees of enclosure.

What interests me are experience where we don’t realise we’re in a filter bubble. The questions of information security don’t occur. We live with ontological security, sufficiently comfortable with this technology (something which personalisation can contribute to) in order to act ‘as-if’ the filter bubble doesn’t create risks for us. Will Davies offers an analogy which captures this effectively:

I have a memory from childhood, a happy memory — one of complete trust and comfort. It’s dark, and I’m kneeling in the tiny floor area of the back seat of a car, resting my head on the seat. I’m perhaps six years old. I look upward to the window, through which I can see streetlights and buildings rushing by in a foreign town whose name and location I’m completely unaware of. In the front seats sit my parents, and in front of them, the warm yellow and red glow of the dashboard, with my dad at the steering wheel.

Contrary to the sentiment of so many ads and products, this memory reminds me that dependence can be a source of deep, almost visceral pleasure: to know nothing of where one is going, to have no responsibility for how one gets there or the risks involved. I must have knelt on the floor of the car backward to further increase that feeling of powerlessness as I stared up at the passing lights.

But when this ontological security is punctured, we can see risks everywhere. What are people doing with our data? What could they be doing with our data? How are our online environments manipulating us? I’m interested in using ontological security as a conceptual frame through which to understand the urge to escape the filter bubble on a psychoanalytical level. As I develop this line of argument, I need to work on making the exact sense of the underlying concept clearer, but leaving that aside for now, I think it offers a really interesting frame for exploration. Here are the propositions I’m going to come back to in order to develop further:

  1. We are enmeshed within a filter bubble through our everyday use of digital technology
  2. The filter bubble is deliberately designed, indeed redesigned on a sometimes hour-to-hour basis, driven by complex and opaque interests
  3. Our orientation towards the filter bubble is extremely variable, even over time in one life, let alone between people

But for now what I’m interested in is how we escape the filter bubble. When we see the endemic risks, when the reassuring cocoon of ontological security recedes, what do we do? The problem is  that not everyone is equally well positioned to escape the filter bubble. It necessitates technical knowledge, time and energy. Some people don’t care but know what to do. Some people do care but don’t know what to do. Most people fall between these two poles at different points in relation to specific issues. What I’m interested in is how any definite attempt to escape the filter bubble leads to an intensification of cognitive burdens at a time of endemic acceleration. If everyone feels rushed, how does the urge to escape the filter bubble contribute to that experience, constituting just one more thing to worry about? How does this in turn contribute to the problem of what I’ve elsewhere described as cognitive triage? I can imagine an emerging profession, consultant digital escapologist, paid to help the cash-rich but time-poor manage their information security.

In the last few months I’ve been writing about cognitive triage: the harried state of temporal accounting, attending to what is most urgent at the expense of what is most important, which we enter into when situational demands outstrip our capacities to meet them. I’ve been focusing primarily on working life but I think that much of everyday life contributes to this process by buttressing a sense of overload which has its roots in labour relations. Even TV plays this role, because as this New Yorker article describes “Under these conditions, the question of where to invest one’s attention becomes more complicated”:

But TV is triage these days. While it used to be possible to catch up with every ambitious drama—during that golden era of TV efficiency, when there were only five of them—that’s no longer true. At this year’s Television Critics Association meetings, FX’s C.E.O., John Landgraf, a prolific producer himself, presented a report that was highly alarming, at least to television critics. Last year, according to FX’s data, three hundred and fifty-two scripted first-run prime-time and late-night programs aired on broadcast, cable, and streaming networks in the U.S., not including PBS. Joe Adalian, crunching the stats at New Yorks Vulture, wrote that the number of new prime-time scripted cable shows had “doubled in just the past five years, tripled since 2007 (the year Mad Men premiered), and grown a staggering 683 percent since the turn of the century.” When people angrily tweet at me that some show is the best thing on TV, I know they’re lying: they haven’t watched most of the other ones, and neither have I.

Part of the problem is an objective increase in what is available but equally significant is our awareness of this increase and the availability of it. The idea I’m trying to flesh out this week is that we are much more likely to know what we are missing: the variety available to us has increased but digitisation has decreased constraints upon the mediation of this variety (e.g. iTunes rather than Blockbuster, monthly free trial of Netflix rather than substantial investment in Sky) and also provoked extensive discussion about this variety at the cultural level (e.g. daily TV websites and blogs rather than the film pages of Sunday newspapers, discussion on social media rather than occasional features on general interest TV). I’m increasingly convinced the mechanisms at work operate across domains, even if their particular implications look very different in spheres such as television, music, literature and scholarly publishing.

I’m aware that I probably come across like I hate Slavoj Zizek but there are many aspects of his work which I really like. My favourite is his account of neoliberal ideology which I understand to be an argument about how subjective disavowal goes hand-in-hand with objective complicity: we maintain a critical distance from a system while nonetheless behaving in a way conducive to its reproduction. Rather than labouring under illusions which, if absented, would lead to action, we see things as they are but in a way that engenders passivity. We expressively repudiate our conditions while nonetheless continuing to acquiesce to them. In fact the former reinforces the latter. We invest ourselves in having seen through the mystification of the system but the pleasure we take in this cynical distance leaves us able to pragmatically continue as if the mystification was still operative.

It seems obvious to me that this cynicism is rife within higher education. Consider the REF: widely scorned yet near universally acquiesced to. My point is not to minimise the practical obstacles to resisting it but simply to suggest that the contrast between the vehemence with which it is discussed and the pragmatism with which it is adapted to is, to put it mildly, rather curious. However I think Zizek’s account helps illuminate the tension here but doesn’t entirely explain it. I’m curious about whether there’s a temporal dimension to critique that needs to be invoked in order to explain this tendency. For a while now, I’ve been trying to develop the notion of cognitive triage: coping strategies on the part of overburdened subjects in which they prioritise the most immediate and urgent demands upon them.

The urgent things which we must attend to tend to be situational. The more time we spend triaging, the more situational factors occupy our decision making. Given our finite attentional resources, we can therefore talk about situational factors crowding out trans-situational considerations. Our decision making doesn’t cease but its temporal scope diminishes. Urgent requirements for next week, tomorrow or later today crowd out considerations of next month, next year or next decade. People adapt to this in all sorts of ways and I would argue that things like digital detoxes can be understood as a coping strategy under conditions where triaging is proving frequently necessary. These coping strategies in turn act back upon the subject when they are pursued habitually. If we are what we habitually do then when, say, one draws on life hacking techniques to cope with their burdens one eventually becomes a life hacker. I’m not sure this is a good thing but reasons I’ll do my best to explain.

My suggestion is that many second-order coping strategies actually intensify the tendency towards triaging. One finds oneself in this state of cognitive triage (first-order) and begins to consult resources to develop techniques to avoid this overburdened fire fighting (second-order). But these techniques will usually involve cultivating a more refined process of self-management: deliberate triaging rather than desperate coping. These techniques involve greater scrutiny of first-order responses in order to better facilitate policing of reactions e.g. measuring and controlling a proclivity towards distraction. In doing so, the slide into situationalism is actually reinforced. The strategies we draw upon to help us cope with the intensity of situational demands leave us more embroiled in situationalism. We do it more gracefully and more efficiently but the tendency towards a narrowing of our temporal horizons is entrenched.

The problem is that critique is necessarily trans-situational. Lay normativity rests on personal concerns which by their nature transcend particular situations. If we’re embroiled in coping with day-to-day demands then it’s very difficult to step back and reflect critically upon the conditions within which those demands occur. It’s more difficult still to consider potential courses of action through which we could individually, let alone collectively, work to change conditions that generate these ceaseless demands that leave us pushed and pulled by forces beyond our immediate control. Under such circumstances, it seems to me that expressive disavowal occupies an important psychological role as a safety valve. It lets us vent and moan. It lets us experience an ephemeral feeling of moral agency over circumstances that frustrate and impede our sense of what a good life could and should be. When we do it collectively, it has the feel of collective repudiation of that which we reject in common. But unfortunately it rarely, if ever, will lead to action. There’s a character in the John Lanchester novel Capital who continually fantasises about leaving his job:

That didn’t mean he didn’t think about giving it up and doing something else. He did, almost every day. The thought was a safety valve; the idea that he could quit whenever he liked was one of the things which kept him in the job. The exit was always in his line of sight. The idea of it helped him to stay put and to cope with the rough parts of his job and his day.

I’m suggesting inertia of this sort is a common phenomenon under conditions of social acceleration. As things get faster, as the demands upon us increase, we are left scrabbling to cope with immediate demands. We don’t lose the capacity to think about the longer term but we do it less and it becomes harder to sustain. The better we become at coping with these situational demands, the more we become locked in the immediate and urgent. The longer this continues, the more we recognise these conditions as ‘life’ and fail to imagine anything else. We don’t cease to be agents but the scope of that agency begins to change in a radical way. Critique and the action to which it leads increasingly gives way to cynicism and inertia. The fact this is occurring in institutional environments where those in charge are “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest“ only makes it worse.

For a couple of years I’ve been striving to empty my e-mail inbox on a daily basis. It doesn’t particularly bother me if I don’t succeed and I often don’t. I go through phases of doing this daily and then, for whatever reason, fall out of the routine. I’ve rarely had to spend more than a hour a day on e-mail this way because there’s only so much that accumulates in the space of twenty-four hours. It’s left me with a firm conviction that e-mail is only really a problem if the quantity exceed a certain point (e.g. if dealing with a day’s e-mail always took a few hours or more) or if you don’t attend to it regularly. Obviously, it can be difficult to attend to it regularly for all sorts of reasons. That in fact is why I write this as someone who does ‘inbox zero’ for a couple of weeks at a time rather than as a continuous feature of my life. But from my point of view what I formerly experienced as a real problem now just seem as if I was doing it wrong. It used to stress me out a lot and, at least when I’m in a phase of emptying my inbox daily, it just doesn’t stress me out at all. I drink coffee, listen to Today on Radio 4 and have cleared my inbox by the time I start my day.

What struck me this morning however is that this process can have unforeseen consequences. It’s not a case of ‘stress’ caused by e-mail giving way to an absence of stress but something more subtle than that. I tweeted earlier today:

I was suddenly struck by the horrible repetitiveness of this process. Had the character limit not precluded it, I would have likely added a fourth line: “continue daily until death”. Well actually I probably wouldn’t because of how unspeakably depressing a sentiment that would be in the absence of the navel-gazing contextualisation a blog post like this would provide. Nonetheless I’ve been thinking about that feeling all morning. It quickly passed but it was an arresting sense of the intrinsic pointlessness of practices conducted in this mode.

I say intrinsic because it has all sorts of extrinsic benefits: by dealing with e-mail in this way I neutralise it as a source of stress, I ignore my inbox for the rest of the day*, I have more time and energy for the things I care about etc. But in and of itself, the practice of ‘inbox zero’ is devoid of value: it’s a kind of cognitive triage, systematically attending to what is urgent in order to free up resources for what is important. That at least is what it’s supposed to do. But I think the instrumentalism of triage practices, desiring to do something as quickly as possible because you’re fundamentally irritated by the fact it’s necessary and want to get it out of the way, risks seeping into how other activities are engaged with.

What provoked that slightly despairing feeling in me this morning was the exercise of going from e-mail to omnifocus: clearing my inbox, clarifying the necessary actions ensuing from those e-mails and filing them in my organiser. Suddenly the various lists contained within that organiser grew dramatically – in one case going from 10 items to 20 items. My problem is that while some of those tasks were incredibly dull, others were not and yet the way I framed them led me to see them all as problems to be solved. They were irritants, barriers to a conceptually incoherent state I was implicitly seeking to attain in which everything I’d ever have to do was now done.

This is the mentality that cognitive triage generates: things are conceived as obstacles to be eliminated rather than activities to be enjoyed. As the list gets bigger, it becomes harder to see the individual ‘to do’ items as activities in their own right. They are reduced to uniform list items and nothing more. Things you enjoy and things you despise are given equal weight. The logic of the to-do list is one of commensurability and this is the problem with it. The process of triaging combined with the logic of the to-do list can lead to an evisceration of value: the potential goods internal to activities, those experiences of value that can only be found through doing, get obliterated by the need to cross items off a list. There’s a relational richness to practical activity which can easily be obliterated at the level of phenomenology by the tendency of ‘productivity’ to give rise to ‘mindless busyness’. This is how Heidegger describes it in What Is Called Thinking?

A cabinetmaker’s apprentice, someone who is learning to build cabinets and the like, will serve as an example. His learning is not merely practice, to gain facility in the use of tools. Nor does he merely gather information about the customary forms of the things he is to build. If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood – to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its nature. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintain the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork, any occupation with it will be determined exclusively by business concerns. Every handicraft, all human dealings are constantly in that danger. The writing of poetry is no more exempt from it than is thinking.  (pg 14-15)

In other words: your desire to ‘get things done’ obscures the fact that you actually like many of the things you’re doing and, as a statement about moral psychology, if you forget this fact then you’re much less likely to enjoy doing them. Being in a rush to get something done runs contrary to attending to the task itself. Unfortunately, it is only through attentiveness that we derive value from practical activity. Focusing on the next thing you have to do squeezes out awareness of what you are presently doing. Wondering how quickly you can get something done makes it hard to focus on the logic of the task itself. Seeing something as an obstacle to be overcome precludes experiencing it as a source of fulfilment. Productivity culture or rather the various forms of triaging it encourages can easily undercut many of the things which motivate it in the first place e.g. seeking to perform mundane tasks more efficiently in order to have more time to write.

*Well actually I don’t but at least I recognise that it’s blind compulsivity that undermines this rather than any practical necessity.